The signings of LeBron James and Chris Bosh in Miami caused quite an uproar this summer as the two All Stars joined Dwyane Wade to form the newest “super” team in the NBA. As much as people love to hate this new trio, this is not the first “super” team, although it may be the most hyped. These guys are trying to follow a blueprint that has been established and proven to be successful in producing championships for the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, and San Antonio Spurs. With the Heat representing the new school version of this blueprint and representing themselves in the bright lights of the television cameras, they have become the poster child for the divide between the new and old school.
So, what caused this split of philosophies?
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This new school blueprint evolution emerged slowly as teams tried to compete with Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs around the time they were winning two titles in three years (2003, 2005). During this time, the Spurs were building a 3-titles-in-5-years dynasty, so other teams scrambled to compete with the Spurs and the blueprint for success changed.
The old blueprint gave way to new teams like the Spurs, the Celtics, and the Lakers with three stars forming “super” teams trying to move past each other for championship glory. This evolution may have seemed like a fluke as the first current “super” team was assembling during the 2002-03 title run, but the Spurs at the time technically only had two stars in Duncan and Tony Parker as Manu Ginobili had yet to emerge in his starring role. By the 2004-05 season, Ginobili had adjusted to the league and was a solid contributor for the Spurs. The first “super” team was officially born. To compete, teams had to build their own “super” teams with two of the most storied franchises being the next ones to embrace this new model.
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But if assembling three stars (and hoping for the best with the rest) is the new blueprint for building a championship team, what was the old model?
Well, let’s look at the championship teams since 1980. The Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Heat, Bulls, Pistons, Rockets, and 76ers all won at least one championship during this time frame. The blueprint was pretty simple: fill five to eight very specific roles on the team, the most crucial being a superstar (but not to the extent that having three stars and some extras is today). So teams went out and tried to assemble a superstar, a sidekick, a rebounder, a shooter, a game-controlling point guard, and capable reserves who all filled specific roles off the bench. The point is that there were many important pieces to be put together, only one of which had to be a true game changer with the ability to take over.
The superstar is easy to explain (think Magic, Jordan, Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal, Isaiah Thomas, Duncan, and Hakeem Olajuwon). He was the team leader and who the team was built around. As important as the superstar was, the players around him were just as important if the team hoped to make a title run, as illustrated by the failed attempts of LeBron James with the Cavaliers and Allen Iverson with the 76ers.
The sidekick was the guy that picked up the slack on the nights the star was struggling. The sidekick rebounded, scored, defended, and basically did anything the team needed him to do (think Scottie Pippen, Joe Dumars, Tony Parker, Kevin McHale, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade). He could possibly be the superstar on his own team, in the right circumstances. The rebounder did the dirty work and usually got the team 10 or more rebounds a night (think Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant, Malik Rose, and McHale). On teams where the center was not the superstar or sidekick, the team needed a big, tall guy to effectively take up space, even if he wasn’t a solid rebounder (think any of the Bulls centers during their championship years). The shooter might have only been called upon a few times a game, but he hit the big shots when they counted (think Steve Kerr, John Paxon, and Robert Horry). The point guard’s job was simple: get the ball to the superstar or to the sidekick when the superstar didn’t have it going that night. It helps if the point guard could shoot, but this was not really required (cough, Isiah). The last couple pieces of the old championship blueprint were role players who came off the bench and could give the starters a breather without giving up the lead. There you have it, the pre-2004 blueprint for winning an NBA title.
Post-2004 “super” teams have been the norm in the NBA, as everyone is forgetting recently. The world took notice when the 2007-08 Celtics won the NBA title after adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to their already established star, Paul Pierce, in hopes of ending the run of the Lakers and the Spurs who had won seven titles since 1999. The Spurs (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili) already had their trio, the Celtics (Pierce, Garnett, Allen) suddenly had theirs, and the Lakers soon had their own with the additions of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom on their way to winning back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
The new blueprint is simple: team three already-established stars together and a couple role players and go win a title. Even with this new blueprint, the three stars aren’t necessarily equals. As everyone already assumes, LeBron is the star with Wade and Bosh falling behind him, respectively. It’s been pretty straightforward and effective so far. Say what you will about LeBron’s and Bosh’s decisions to join Wade in Miami, but they are just trying to follow the new blueprint for success.
Let’s not overlook the Celtics’ attempt to one-up everyone by signing Shaq in the offseason. They now have four veteran stars, aging stars but stars nonetheless. With Shaq looking to get five rings before Duncan in some underlying competition to tie Kobe for the most number of rings, and the Heat trying to prove themselves, what will this do to the balance of power in the NBA?
As the NBA season approaches, this newest “super” team will face loads of criticism every time they lose a game, but the criticism has already started. Some of the members of the old school have been vocal about their thoughts on these “super” teams and what they mean for the game today. One difference between the old and new blueprint is that players today are choosing to go to teams with already existent established stars much more so than during the old school era, when players like Magic, Bird, and Jordan would never willingly play alongside one another. The old school players were competitors first and friends second. For superstars today, it’s more about image and branding than dominance. Players don’t have that drive and contempt for their fellow stars that once fueled the greatest rivalries in the NBA. Superstars had an air about them of wanting to be the best and to compete against other superstars, not team up with them.
Magic and Jordan have been the most vocal of all the greats who have actually won an NBA title (sorry Charles, you don’t count here) in their contempt for superstars teaming up to win titles. The belief is that this willingness to share the spotlight speaks to the lack of alpha dogs in the NBA right now. Both have publicly stated they would have never have teamed up with another superstar to win an NBA championship. The rivalries between top players made the NBA what it was, Magic vs Bird, Jordan vs Thomas vs everyone. Those rivalries are why many of us are basketball fans today. Rivalries exist today but not on the scale or for the reasons they once did. We have Kobe vs Shaq, which has become the NBA’s own version of cheesy daytime soaps that never end, and James vs Kobe whose rivalry is very PG-13 compared to rivalries of the past. On a side note, notice how each has aligned himself with a “super” team in hopes of beating each other (outside of Kobe, who was teamed with Shaq from the very beginning).
On the opposite side of this argument is Isaiah Thomas (forget the fact that he has little credibility left) who pointed out the obvious, that Magic, Bird, and Jordan had stacked teams or at least enough pieces to win championships. James and Bosh were not winning a title any time soon with the Cavaliers and Raptors. It is the team owners/management’s job to surround superstars with the right role players and coaches to place them in a position to win. LeBron waited and waited in Cleveland for the right situation to develop and it never did - same with Bosh in Toronto. How long were they supposed to waste away with their dead end teams?
With the NBA moving into yet another phase in its growth and level of play, we can expect more of these “super” teams as players try to keep the line “he was great, but never could get over that hump and win” from their names. Although there is still a group of stars in the NBA who refuse to team up with other stars to win a championship, namely Kevin Durant, there is little doubt this new blueprint is the norm right now. The big question that will be answered in time is how many more championships can these older “super” teams win before LeBron and company start racking up their own?